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Ange Ong: Hong Kong Café

Ange Ong’s Hong Kong Cafe explores the specific cultural exchange that occurred as a result of British colonialism in her native country. Growing up, Ange was a regular of Hong Kong’s British-influenced colonial-era cafes. When Ange left Hong Kong, she found these cafes in immigrant communities across North America that sought to recreate these familiar places from home. After observing cafes in New York and London, Ange began to build replicas of these spaces to capture the elements of their design, defining her attraction to these symbols and using them as a way to create her own slice of home.

Ange Ong, from the series Hong Kong Cafe, 2016, courtesy of the artist.

Using foam-core and paper, Ange creates and shoots intricate life-sized models based on photos of the original cafes and her own memories. These paper replicas bring together elements that are not necessarily from the same cafe, but capture the spirit and feeling of these colonial holdovers. The words, however, are missing. Menus, posters, and products are in their proper place, but left blank. The replicas aren’t perfect; the viewer catches the odd cardboard edge on the side of a booth, or slight peeling from the seemingly pristine mid-century tile. Yet in this way, Ange recreates the cafes the same way her fellow transplants did upon arriving in their new homes. By taking part in this cultural exchange, she beautifully captures her own feelings of these spaces that are at once familiar and alien.

The blank decor strewn throughout the models express Ange’s fears. It is hard to find a place in the city that matches the time and generation she comes from, and she runs the risk of these imperfect replicas replacing her memories of home. Ange also understands that while these cafes are symbols of home for her, they are becoming obsolete in Hong Kong today. Since the end of British colonialism, cultural shifts have continued to change the collateral references of younger generations. These cafes won’t resonate with them the way they resonate with Ange. Those who relocate will create their own collateral, appropriating the culture in their own way.

Ange Ong, from the series Hong Kong Cafe, 2016, courtesy of the artist

Through her cafes, Ange examines the idea that home means different things to different people, and that a person can have more than one place they call home. Her quiet still lifes—which look as though we are viewing a moment left behind in memory—are used to reflect on these little moments of clarity, where Ange realizes that her references are different to those of other immigrants from older generations or even in the same city. In this way, Hong Kong Cafe exposes authenticity as an illusion.